The trailer to Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, The Great Gatsby, was released on Tuesday and featured a famous face typically unseen in Hollywood productions. Amongst the cast of notable stars who are well-known here in the states, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan, appeared the king of Bollywood himself, Amitabh Bachchan. Though the 70-year-old legend will unquestionably draw in a significant international audience, it is puzzling that Luhrmann would cast him for a role in a period piece about the Jazz Age in New York City.
Bachchan’s character in the film is the shady businessman, Meyer Wolfsheim. Bachchan agreed to join the cast without any compensation as a favor to Luhrmann—the director presented him with paintings by a popular painter who had accompanied him during his visit to India last year. “He called last month and wondered if I would do this small role in his film, and I agreed. It is a gesture,” Bachchan wrote in his blog.
The trailer highlights the film’s presentation in 3D and features music by Kanye West, yet Bachchan indicates in his blog that Luhrmann’s goal was to genuinely re-create the novel and the era: “Recreating a period gone by is always such a challenge. The research, the search of documentation, of the written word of the times, the dress, speech, ambience, is a nightmare for the production. But I must give great credit to Baz for having taken and gone into a most extensive and exacting procedure in getting each little aspect of the times of the 20’s and 30’s New York to perfection.”
This brings up the question of why Luhrmann didn’t cast a more fitting actor to play a Jewish mobster from the 1920s. As an actor who has played in over 175 movies since the 1960s, and received nominations for innumerable Filmfare Awards, (India’s version of the Academy Awards,) I have no doubt that Bachchan brought his A-game to this role.
Perhaps one reason for casting the Bollywood star was to make it easier for international audiences to relate to the film. The Great Gatsby is a timeless American novel that is part of the curriculum in schools in the states; the book does not have the same status abroad. It is likely that the tale will resonate with American audiences, but it would make sense for international audiences to have a more difficult time relating. Bachchan will serve as an international touchstone, and as someone who is possibly more familiar with crime in India, he will bring his own take on Wolfsheim's character. An Indian spin would definitely be an interesting presentation of the famous story, but we won't know how Bachchan plays it until the film is released and we can see it for ourselves.